‘Narratives are at the heart of everything’: Storytelling practices and examples for welcoming communities

Feb 22, 2024

, ‘Narratives are at the heart of everything’: Storytelling practices and examples for welcoming communities

A version of this article was first drafted for the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC) by Rachel Westerby, an independent writer and researcher on migration, refugees, and integration, and published on the Global Forum on Migration and Development Civil Society’s website.

On the final day of the 14th Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD) Summit in Geneva, an event highlighted the importance of narratives, partnerships, and ethical storytelling to communicate migrants’ stories and realities.

The event, titled “How Civil Society is Changing Migration Narratives: From Multistakeholder Partnerships to Ethical Storytelling,” was organized by the GFMD Civil Society Mechanism in collaboration with the U.S. government, the GFMD Working Group on Public Narratives on Migration, and the International Centre for Migration Policy Development.

Moderator Christina Pope, Senior Director of Welcoming International at Welcoming America, emphasized that welcoming initiatives — local, national, and international — can and should use inclusive and ethical narrative strategies to build belonging and advance systemic change.

“Narratives are at the heart of everything: they influence policy and are influenced by policy, they can instill fear or build confidence, and are central to tackling racism and xenophobia,” she said. “Today, we aim to highlight strategic practices on narratives, provide concrete examples of practice underpinned by partnership and ethical approaches, and emphasize the critical role of civil society in this area.”

Lessons from a global campaign for welcoming actions

To kick off the panel, Christina Pope shared how Welcoming America has learned from the 11-year Welcoming Week initiative, a narrative and local action campaign active in Australia, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, the U.S., and beyond.

Welcoming Week celebrates the actions of governments, civil society organizations, businesses, and individuals to create more welcoming communities. National leaders from these countries work in partnership across sectors and across levels of government to host local events and catalyze large-scale social and traditional media engagement. In 2023, local governments and civil society organizations hosted at least 670 events worldwide.

A key lesson highlighted from Welcoming Week is that it is vital to focus not only on which messages are strategic and effective, but also to pair those messages with concrete local policy actions and social cohesion activities that show the public what is working well on migration, and help them feel they can be part of this vision.

Welcoming Week was featured in Localizing the Global Compacts to showcase the political commitment and concrete actions local governments are taking to meet the needs of refugees and migrants through the Local Call to Local Action for Migrants and Refugees. The report was shared at the GFMD Summit after its official release at the Global Refugee Forum in December 2023 in Geneva.

Telling migrant stories: Ethics, inclusion and agency

In a powerful intervention during the event’s opening panel, Nermin Ahmad of the NGO Committee on Migration reflected on her experiences as a migrant woman and highlighted ethical considerations for stakeholders seeking to tell migrant stories in support of changing narratives.

“People on the move, those most in need and most marginalized are fearful to share their reality. With reason. They have learned to tell the stories that get the best response, to create cover stories that protect them, and their families left behind,” she stated. “‘I’m a woman on the move. My honest, considered responses based on lived experience have been interpreted, incorrectly relayed, and edited to meet the expectations or required funding narrative of the few.”

Highlighting her experience compiling a guidebook for newly-arrived refugee women, she described how her organization chose to draw on testimony and advice from established immigrant women who were less susceptible to this internalized bias. “We used data collected from established newcomers to develop basic adaptation and guidance material and delivered it as humorous, informal advice from a sister or aunt.”

Ahmad’s recommendations centered on practice that promotes meaningful inclusion and representation. “The best way to be inclusive is to fully hear what newcomers want to share and respect it even when their narrative is not what you were looking for or wanted to hear,” she stated. “Let their narrative emerge, and respect it – hear, honor and honestly respond. This helps them build trust, begin to release their fears, and lets them share their needs.”

Echoing her comments, Paddy Siyanga Knudsen of the Global Research Forum on Diaspora and Transnationalism and the African Non-state Actors Platform on the GFMD, highlighted how migrants’ stories can change according to who is telling them. “Stories and the versions of those stories told by other people feed perceptions: it can be my story, but your version,” she noted. “Although tech offers useful approaches, we must retain the integrity of stories through direct communication, and remember that ‘balanced narratives’ are not always the same as the migrant reality.”

‘None of us can do it alone’: Partnerships for narrative change

Siyanga Knudsen strongly emphasized the importance of multistakeholder and multilevel partnerships in narrative change. “Single actors can’t change narratives on their own, because we all have different perceptions,” she said. “The fact that this topic is a priority in an international space like the GFMD is hugely positive, as is the strong engagement of civil society alongside local government,” she stated. “It’s crucial to provide spaces to share and collaborate across all stakeholders, at all levels.”

The value of locally specific action and collaboration was further highlighted by Nathalie Porte, project and programme coordinator at E-Graine, a citizenship education movement based in France. “Our Migrant Education Programme aims to restructure narratives of migration presented in mainstream media,” she explained. “We work with local and regional multistakeholder partnerships, including, for example, civil society, academia, local government, and communities, to implement actions to mobilize citizens in a way that responds to each specific geographical context.”

Porte described several successful actions supported by E-Graine, including an immersive exhibition placing viewers in the position of a migrant, exhibitions and workshops on migration as part of French national history, and educational initiatives to build young people’s capacity to critically engage with discussions on EU migration policy.

Creating local ecosystems of narrative change

Panelists at the event also highlighted the importance of action taken in proximity to citizens and communities for achieving narrative change.

Corinne Huybers, diversity lead at the Belgian city of Mechelen, offered a comprehensive insight into the work of her city changing negative narratives and perceptions of migration and integration.

“37% of the citizens of Mechelen have a migrant background, and 11% of the citizens do not have Belgian nationality,” she explained. “When we look at the city of Mechelen fifteen years ago, polarization was high and over 30% of the city’s inhabitants voted for the extreme right. Now, 76% of Mechelaars are ‘proud to live’ in Mechelen and the citizens’ appreciation for the city’s integration policy is one of the highest in the country.”

Huybers presented an overview of how the city reinvented narratives of migration, integration, and local identity to achieve this change, citing urban renovation and renewal projects focused on outdoor spaces and sports facilities, building dialogue with young people from migrant communities, and implementing an inclusive strategic political and communications strategy across all local government services and with external partners.

“In Mechelen the starting point is that ‘we have to learn to live together.’ It is not about ‘them’ integrating into ‘our’ society, but we all have to integrate into the super-diverse 21st century,” she stated.

Huybers particularly highlighted the success of the city’s “50 Years Of Diversity” campaign, which promoted 128 portraits of diverse ‘Mechelaars’ and their associated stories under the banner “We Are All Mechelaars.”

“Change, transition and critical self-reflection is a slow, difficult and sensitive process. We are very vigilant about using language and images that does not polarize, and to use a consistent, persistent, positive and inclusive narrative,” she concluded. “For us, the key is the repetition of our message, and a focus on the power of storytelling to shift narratives.”

Marta Youth, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary at the U.S. government’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, called on all stakeholders to remember the long-term nature of efforts to shift migration narratives. “We need to do better with evaluations and data, but this is iterative work,” she stated. “Narrative change by its nature necessitates a ‘drip-drip’ approach, and we have to persevere.”

Learn more about narrative at the GFMD: Check out the story originally published on the Global Forum on Migration and Development Civil Society Mechanism’s website.

For more information on spurring local actions through Welcoming Week, check out our interview about Welcoming Week with IRCC in the Government of Canada.

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